While the top of the Billboard Hot 100 remains static yet again this week, the Billboard 200 sees one of its more interesting album races in recent months, with NF‘s fourth album The Search ultimately bowing at No. 1 — one spot above Chance the Rapper‘s proper debut LP The Big Day.
The top finish for The Search has made for a great deal of industry conversation, since despite already having a No. 1 LP to his name (2017’s Perception), NF has not been traditionally seen as a star on the same level as Chance — whose long-awaited first official album after a series of hit mixtapes and other projects was one of the year’s most anticipated releases. But is the disparity between the rappers really as great as Twitter tends to see it? And does their chart finish really mean that much about either artist anyway? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below.
1. How surprised are you that The Search was able to outperform The Big Day last week?
Trevor Anderson: Somewhat surprised – 5/10? Funny enough, this fight came down to a good-old-fashioned symbolism contest: Album sales vs streams. In some ways like Logic before him, people underestimate NF’s small-but-loyal fanbase willing to buy the album and any associated merchandise or bundle offers. They wanna see their guy succeed, point blank. Curiously, I wonder if Chance’s super-Internet career upbringing affected this too: Since all his mixtapes never went on sale until just weeks ago, does anyone even consider buying a Chance album? Sure, for some, this may seem a very inside baseball debate, but, as we see, it has a very practical effect on the No. 1 race.
Josh Glicksman: Extremely surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t be. Chance has racked up quite the list of accolades over the past few years: three Grammys, headliner at major festivals, a No. 1 hit as a featured artist on the Hot 100. But from a charts standpoint, you could certainly argue NF has very quietly outperformed the Chicago rapper since 2016. NF notched his first No. 1 album in 2017 — a feat that still eludes Chance — and has six lead artist entries on the Hot 100 to Chance’s three. Twitter followers be damned (Chance has over 8 million; NF has fewer than half a million), maybe we should’ve seen this coming.
Ross Scarano: I was surprised. Working at Billboard has forced me to pay closer attention to NF and made me understand that he has a seriously engaged following — this is the culmination. Still, I assumed that Chance would draw a bigger, no-less-engaged audience for such a long-awaited album. But The Big Day arrived in the wake of a delay and without a strong pre-release single — not necessarily egregious problems but considering the race in hindsight, they’re worth mentioning. And then there’s the sense that, among critics at least, consensus had turned against Chance. My mom isn’t aware of that changing tide, but I’m sure it took took its toll among some listeners who came to find his brand of buoyancy, well, tired.
Andrew Unterberger: Pretty surprised! Not that I doubt NF’s following — he charts pretty much every new song on the Hot 100 regardless of outside support, usually a sign of someone whose fanbase is stronger than we might realize — but I did think Chance’s streaming dominance would win out here. But we’re also just not seeing full rap albums dominate on streaming in 2019 the way they have in years past; maybe just due to the A-listers who’ve yet to check in, but maybe because the hip-hop streaming bubble is finally starting to deflate a bit.
Christine Werthman: Not surprised at all. Chance the Rapper’s album is mostly about his wedding and his love for his wife, while NF’s songs deal with mental health, anxiety, and self-acceptance, and as we’ve seen with Logic, that frank discussion of insecurities attracts a lot of listeners these days. No shots at Chance for making a feel-good record — lord knows we could use some positive vibes — but discontent is sometimes easier to connect with.
2. Clearly a lot of onlookers have underestimated NF’s current place in the industry. Why do you think NF tends to go under the radar, and what about him has allowed him to amass such a fanbase while doing so?
Trevor Anderson: NF operates in a weird space for 2010s hip-hop: He’s not a certified legend (duh), and he doesn’t fit in to this new landscape that prizes genre-bending, melody and mood as hip-hop music undergoes a big transformation, so he doesn’t attract mass attention for either his past accomplishments or any groundbreaking innovation. But, in some ways, that does invite a different group of potential fans: (white?) people who enjoy rapping as a skill and concept but appreciate how he gravitates toward more-familiar pop and rock sounds, and, crucially, doesn’t curse! I’d imagine, too, that his prior status as a Christian rapper, helps here: For those church-abandoning millennials, NF still discusses very pressing personal issues but in a digestible, no-censorship-needed way.
Josh Glicksman: Addressing the latter question first, as much as NF is likely sick of the comparison — just listen to his alleged diss on “Returns” — he sure sounds a lot like Eminem. That’s not to say NF didn’t amass a strong fanbase on his own, but the lyrical rapid fire, dark subject matter, and abruptly transitory choruses are all reminiscent of Slim Shady (as well as Logic, who he toured with in 2018). NF doesn’t shy away from the fact that he’s not itching for big media promotion, either. On “-Interlude-,” he calls equates the most “successful” moment of his life to his worst. Under the radar feels more intentional than coincidental for NF.
Ross Scarano: Accurately or inaccurately at this point, NF is perceived as being an explicitly faith-based musician; he signed to Capitol Christian Music Group in 2014. Of course, Chance’s music is often explicitly Christian too — in that way that lots of rap music can be, just as lots of significant rap music has been made by Five Percenters and Muslims — but Chance didn’t come up through a faith-based label system. He made his name as an exciting young unsigned rapper, covered by outlets like Fake Shore Drive and Complex, and he happened to work Christianity in some of the time. NF wasn’t covered by outlets like that. He chose a path that, even though it involved a label, made him perhaps more of an underdog for mainstream success than Chance.
Andrew Unterberger: I think hip-hop has become such a collaborative community and economy — one largely based on features, co-signs and other forms of artist crossover and co-sponsorship — that when we get someone like NF, who seems to operate entirely outside that system, we tend to write them off as niche. “Platinum with no features” is a cliché at this point, but The Search is so firmly NF’s own sound and vision that it’s almost jarring to listen to. But there’s power in that kind of singularity, too, and NF appears to have tapped into it in a way that few of his rap peers have in 2019.
Christine Werthman: I’m sure a lot of people overlooked NF, or intentionally wrote him off, for being a non-swearing, white, Christian rapper. That does not exactly fit the description of the next hot rapper, who magazines and websites are tripping over themselves to interview. Despite now making more of a mainstream play, NF came up in the Christian music world, collaborating with TobyMac of DC Talk, and even jumping on a track in 2013 with the Christian artist Flame, (a.k.a. the guy who sued Katy Perry over “Dark Horse” and won). The Pew Research Center says that Christians make up about three-quarters of the country, and while I’m tempted to do some speculative number crunching about what percentage of those people are rap fans, instead I’m just going to say that that’s a lot of potential listeners and fans.
3. As one of the decade’s most beloved rappers, is a No. 2 debut for The Big Day actually that much of a letdown for Chance the Rapper? Or is that still pretty good for a rapper who’s never really had a conventional smash hit and has remained fiercely independent for his entire career?
Trevor Anderson: Leading question, no? But I’ll bite. It’s not a disaster for Chance, by any means. He still broke the six-digit figure in terms of first-week consumption units and, given that Acid Rap reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200 just weeks ago, people still ride for him. Curious, however, to see where we go from here – the reviews for The Big Day are mixed, and, as Chance’s proper debut album, will an artist who traces part of his novelty and appeal to breaking the rules finally have to settle into convention?
Josh Glicksman: It’s both. Whether or not you want to buy into The Big Day actually counting as Chance’s first album, it was heavily branded as such. Bowing at No. 2 is quite good for a debut album, but the feat loses a bit of its shine when taking into account that he’s already notched two entries in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 (Coloring Book at No. 8 in 2016, Acid Rap at No. 5 following its placement on DSPs a few weeks ago). The elusive No. 1 still feels more like “when” than “if” for Chance, but the pressure will continue to mount with each passing body of work.
Ross Scarano: I think a bit of the answer is given away in the question here. Chance is about to headline an arena tour. NF gets his big day (sorry), but Chance is still doing pretty good, to say the least.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s not a failure, certainly, but it’s hard to deny at this point that Chance’s momentum in 2019 is simply not what it was in 2016, when Coloring Book and “Ultralight Beam” positioned him as next in line for the hip-hop crown. Maybe that’s not even what he wants in 2019 — avowed family man that he currently is, he likely has different priorities than straight-up numerical supremacy, and that’s almost certainly the healthy thing. But a couple years ago, it’d have been tough to believe that Chance would finish the decade second to pretty much anyone.
Christine Werthman: I can’t speak for Chance, but as a Chance fan, I can say that I wasn’t disappointed by the No. 2 slot. In fact, I was sort of happy that the more basic rapper prevailed and allowed Chance to maintain his underdog status.
4. If you could try to give either NF or Chance one piece of advice for the betterment of their long-term career, what would it be?
Trevor Andreson: For Chance, The Big Day tries to navigate too many moving parts, and the weight of that expectation makes for an shaky, uneven output. Perhaps it’s the natural outcome from a buildup of pressur, following three acclaimed mixtapes, one of which (Coloring Book) made leaps for streaming and won him three Grammys, including best new artist. Whatever it is, Chance sacrificed the intricacy and depth of his bars in favor of a more mass-appeal project. It works in some ways — who’d thought we’d see a surprisingly good Shawn Mendes feature on a Chance album? — but we need a return to authenticity and intrigue here. You don’t need to seek out to capture the world, Chance. We’ll come to you.
Josh Glicksman: Chance, take a break from the internet. It feels like Chance has gone down the rabbit hole of the comments section, which is never, ever a good thing. Following the release of The Big Day, he’s been deemed rap’s “wife guy,” with many eager to bash the 22-song project, even though the album is surely no disaster. Yesterday morning, in a response not clear to anything in particular, Chance tweeted, “I’m getting this crazy feeling that people want me to kill myself.” So Chance, if you’re reading this, please log off. The Internet is (usually) a bad place. Take some time, celebrate the new album, and most importantly, make sure you’re taking care of yourself.
Ross Scarano: Whatever NF is doing, he should keep doing that. It’s worked this far and by remaining under the radar, I’m sure he’s lost none of the credibility and luster that his fans obviously cherish. Exposure can be a dangerous thing; wear gloves when you handle it. Of course, growth and/or change can be alienating to a fandom too. (Think of how many Kanye fans wish he would return to the sound and style of The College Dropout or Late Registration.) Ultimately, the artist needs to trust their own course, while hopefully sharpening their skills as an editor as they go.
Andrew Unterberger: I’d maybe nudge NF to resist the crossover offers that are likely coming his way in the wake of his exposure bump following this album’s No. 1. Not to say he should cut himself off from collaborating with artists he legitimately wants to find creative overlap with, but when the more faceless producers and stat-thirsty pop singers come out of the woodwork asking for a guest verse/signal boost, he’d be wise to be careful about who he says yes to. Continuing to represent for the outsiders as an insider can be tricky terrain, and a status not worth jeopardizing for a strong New Music Friday placement.
Christine Werthman: Don’t listen to me because I’m not a professional musician and most of my advice would be unfounded?
5. These NF “Real Music” sweats: Fire, trash, both or neither?
Trevor Anderson: I have no strong feelings about these – I’ll hope the material is nice, though. If NF wants to send a brother a pair though, I’m not upset.
Josh Glicksman: Maybe it’s because it’s perpetually sweltering in New York, but the idea of buying these sweatpants for $50 dollars is ludicrous. They’re just black sweatpants with simple print. I did roughly 30 seconds of research, and I found a way to custom print the text ‘REALMUSIC’ down the pant leg of plain black sweatpants for less than $20 bucks. Luckily for NF, I won’t reveal my sources, but just know it’s an option.
Ross Scarano: *signal lost*
Andrew Unterberger: Disparage them now if you want, but when Ezra Koenig (or whoever his 2030 equivalent is) shows up to a Lollapalooza headlining slot in them one day, you’ll kick yourself for not having been ahead of the curve.
Christine Werthman: Hot fire. Offended that no one has purchased them for me yet.